My complicated relationship with Lloyd Ogilvie

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A portrait on the wall

I never knew Lloyd Ogilvie. Never heard him preach. Never shook his hand. Never beheld his toothy smile. Yet, I felt as though I did. For three years I served on the staff of the First Presbyterian Church of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. And during those years I spent many evenings in the parlor, a large room hung with the portraits of senior ministers of the past. Ogilvie was Senior Pastor from 1962-1972 and his successor Keith Brown was his former associate pastor. Like everything else he touched, he left his indelible imprint upon the church, in ways greater than the black and white photo on the parlor wall.

A complicated relationship

Churches are complicated. And churches with an illustrious history are even more complicated. Over my time at First Presbyterian Church I many shared stories about how Ogilvie’s personal dynamism and commitment to a rigorous new members class led to the church growing to become one of the largest Presbyterian churches in the northeastern United States.

By the time I left I was, to be frank, pretty sick and tired of the Ogilvie legacy. As a hard-working associate pastor, it’s difficult to hear stories of the glory days and not feel an implied critique of today’s (perhaps less than glorious) reality.

The truth–one that was difficult for some to accept–is that the Bethlehem of Ogilvie’s tenure was gone. Post-Steel Bethlehem was world’s apart from the 1960s-1970s–the Madmen years in which executive wives stayed at home while their husbands played at the executive golf course and watched over the city from their corner office in Martin Tower (recently demolished).

It was the best of times

I have a melancholy temperament at the best of times, but it’s always seemed a little unfair that ministerial heroes of yesteryear made their name (so to speak) in the midst of culture that was positively oriented to American Christian civil religion.

I’m not sure it was that difficult to plant a church like Eugene Peterson did.

I’m not sure it was that hard to develop a 12-week new members process like Ogilvie did when women didn’t work and families could live on a single income.

Perhaps that’s unfair. Perhaps I’m bitter. I’m sure it’s a bit of both.

Ogilvie positively impacted many people. At the same there was something of a low-church, low-theology, positivity-focused evangelicalism about him. He certainly didn’t go to the lengths of someone like his contemporary colleague Robert Schuller, but they seemed of the same ilk. Always ready with the big smile, the positive catchphrase, and the promise of a life ahead that is better than the only past because you let Jesus in.

The future is not bright

Today’s pastors cannot offer a future that is made smoother by Jesus’ presence in it. Better, yes. Smoother, no.

The truth is that I think pastors often don’t get credit for the immensity of the task that’s before them today. That’s a shame because it is an incredibly difficult job and its a job they’re (we’re) doing in the face of a culture that is shifting in some really significant ways.

So, this weekend some time to thank your pastor!

Why children are fleeing from London

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The rise in violent crime in the United Kingdom–and particularly in London–is leading immigrant families to send their children back to their homelands for safety.

Read this intriguing BBC article here.

The article features this story about Somali immigrant and Islington (London) mayor Rakhia Ismail:

The new mayor for Islington, Rakhia Ismail – a mother of four who came to London from Somalia as a refugee – believes that some areas of the city are unsafe for young people.

“Does the parent wait for her child to be killed? Or does the parent take a decision – quite a drastic decision – to take him all the way back to wherever that child is from originally?”

She says she knows families who are waiting for their children to finish primary school so they can leave the UK.

She estimates that out of every five Somalian families, two are taking their children back home.

Dr Fatumo Abdi – a mother of Somali origin – said parents were struggling to know how to react to knife crime.

“This is not something they’ve encountered before. But we know living here in Britain, the context is Britain. This is a British problem and it’s a problem that we’ve fallen into.

“It’s not the answer but these are desperate parents.”

She believes poverty, inequality and exposure to violence are big factors as to why young people fall into criminality.

“Our communities are living in very poor disadvantaged areas with poor educational attainment. All these things affect how our children move through the world.”

What’s interesting here is how this turns a typical narrative (that immigrants increase crime) on its head–or, at least makes the narrative a great deal more complex.

Five ways to waste your weekend

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Webp.net-resizeimage (2)Weekends are precious so make sure you don’t waste yours

It’s been about a year since our family made the change to both Anna and I working full-time and out-of-the-house. The way we think about weekends has changed immensely! It’s challenging to find a sustainable pace.

Before that, either one or both of us had worked from home. There are some definite down-sides to working from home, but that kind of flexibility does make it way easier to get a full work day in and stay up on chores–especially if you’re able to avoid an hour in the car.

Over the last year I’ve made a number of mis-steps in managing the week which have led to wasted weekends. Here are five easy ways to waste your weekend and go back to work on Monday feeling robbed.


Do nothing but chores


The weekend won’t last forever.

Use every last ounce of energy to knock out every possible chore you could need to do during the week.

Fall into bed on Sunday night exhausted and then when the alarm goes off in the morning: hate your life.

Better alternative: try spacing out chores every night. Make a schedule and try to avoid all-or-nothing thinking.

Eat comfort food


You
 finally made it to the weekend.

You’re tired. You don’t want to cook.

Just grab a frozen pizza, fling it into a pre-heated oven and eat. 

Better alternative: Plan out some salads, fish, or other healthy meals so that you don’t have to make a decision in the moment.

Hibernate in the house


You get up early every morning and leave the house. You spend ours in the car each week fighting traffic. You deserve to stay on the couch all weekend watching sports.

Don’t you?

Better alternative: make time for rest and for exertion. If all you do is veg you’ll find yourself becoming lethargic. If all you do is exert, you’ll find yourself exhausted.

Say Yes to Everything


You only have one weekend. Try to pack a week’s worth of fun into it. 

There’s a lot going on.

Do. It. All.

Better alternative: designate part of your weekend solely for things that give you energy and that lift your spirit.

Burn the midnight oil

Sleep is for old people.

Young people.

The weak.

Make sure you wring every moment from the weekend by staying up late and getting up early. You’ll make up for it during the work week.


So. How do you waste your weekend?

[New Series] How to get stuff done for pastors – 1

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My first year on the senior staff team of a large church has been exhilarating and pretty challenging. One of the biggest challenges has been learning to coordinate ministry initiatives across the church. This coordination requires effective communication and often meetings form the starting point for that communication. In a given week I usually lead a departmental staff meeting and three to four one-on-one meetings with direct reports. I participate in our senior staff meeting which is led by our Senior Pastor/Head of Staff, which is a blend of strategic discussion and tactical planning. I also attend our weekly pastors’ meeting which covers a variety of topics related to pastoral care, worship, and the like. That’s a total of seven meetings not including bi-monthly session meetings, and other committee meetings.

In each of these meetings, I capture notes as well as actions that I am responsible for. Early on I realized that by the end of the week I had a bunch of legal pads with meeting notes and actions accumulating on my desk. A lot of times it seemed that the stack kept growing and that I was at my capacity to keep up with things using such an ad hoc system. In ministry, just as in business, people don’t like it when you drop balls or miss important details. It erodes trust, which is the currency of ministry.

Stress Man

I decided to revisit David Allen’s influential book Getting Things DoneIf you’ve never read it, do yourself a favor and get a copy as soon as you can. Read it. Implement it. It will change your life.

Allen’s approach (GTD, for short) is a simple five step process that will enable you to externalize tasks so you don’t have to have them buzzing around in your head. Here’s a snapshot of the system:

  1. Capture—collect what has your attention
  2. Clarify—process what it means
  3. Organize—put it where it belongs
  4. Reflect—review frequently
  5. Engage—simply do

Consider this a GTD tutorial. You can learn the system and put it into practice by reading the five posts (of which this is the first).

Step One – Collect or capture what has your attention.

My Capture Tools: these are the places–physical and virtual–where I place “to dos.” They’re sort of like different buckets that I empty regularly into an orderly system for processing.

  1. Email Inbox: I get about fifty emails a day (at work, which is low). Most contain information and often an action. I process my inbox daily with a goal of getting to zero messages in my inbox.
  2. Office Phone Voicemail: I get relatively few phone messages. I usually listen to them and write brief notes on an index card and then throw that card into my physical inbox for processing later.
  3. Cell Phone Voicemail/Text: Same as #2.
  4. Office mail box: I process my office mail box several times a day, putting actionable items into my physical inbox.
  5. Levenger International Pocket Briefcase [Link]: I put receipts in my wallet, jot notes on index cards that are in the wallet, and process these into my physical inbox every time I return from outside of the office.

All of these capture tools end up moving action items either (1) into my physical inbox or (2) into a file in Outlook that I use to categorize and process emails into task manager.

inbox-zeroDavid Allen will tell you that the critical thing about collecting is that you have to collect everything. You’ve got to build trust in the system by using the system to handle all of your tasks or other data points that are taking your concentration or subconscious memory. And you have to discipline yourself to take one of five responses to something that comes across your desk (see the graphic to the left).

For all of these decisions (other than deleting) you have to have a system to help you to do things like:

  • Keep track of items delegated to others so that you can follow up on them.
  • Keep track of items deferred so that you’ll come back to them when the time is right.

It’s a big task especially in a profession where there are often unplanned major events (hospital visits and funerals) alongside a rigorous normal schedule of worship and work.

Next up: how to clarify!

Five things to do when leading in uncertainty

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The reason markets hate uncertainty is because people hate uncertainty. Each of us has a limited capacity—it varies from person-to-person—to live in a state of ambiguity. We need closure. Some of the most horrific suffering in this world is the product of unsolved crimes like child abduction. It can be paralyzing in the extreme.

Because of our dislike for uncertainty it is often difficult for leaders to be effective during a time of great ambiguity. For those who do lead effectively during a time of uncertainty, that leadership often comes with great personal cost.

I’ve witnessed this in the lives of my clergy colleagues in the Presbyterian Church (USA). The average membership of a PC(USA) congregation is around 180. 76% of PC(USA) churches are smaller than 200 members. On a given Sunday around half of the members of a church are present in worship.[i]

As pastoral leaders, how do we respond to these sorts of ambiguous situations? What do we do when we don’t know what to do? Or, when what we don’t know that what we’re about to do will help solve the problem we’re facing?

I’m currently reading Mary Beth O’Neill’s book Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart: A Systems Approach to Engaging Leaders with their Challenges. She writes,

By ambiguity, I mean the business situations that are by nature unclear and murky. It’s not like people have suddenly lost their intelligence of problem-solving ability. Rather, the issues never seem to sort themselves out.

Leaders often lose their bearings when confronted with lingering ambiguity. Like a pilot landing a plane in low visibility uses an instrument landing system (ILS) to guide the plane smoothly onto the runway, leaders can take five actions when confronted with ambiguity. These actions may not shift the fog of uncertainty, but they will provide a guiding framework to navigate through it.

GBAS - runway

Five things to do when leading in uncertainty:

  1. Acknowledge the ambiguity
  2. Distinguish for yourself where you are clear and where you are unclear about the situation
  3. Articulate to others the boundary between your clarity and your lack of clarity
  4. Say what you want to do, given the situation
  5. Tell others what you need from them

Acknowledge the ambiguity. Unnamed ambiguity hinders communication and also inhibits performance. It’s a manacle that makes a victim of leadership teams. Naming the ambiguity places it front and center and also helps the entire team to own it. The truth is—despite what our hearts often tell us—in 99% of situations, the ambiguity is no one’s fault. Letting go of the guilt will help a team to move forward.

Distinguish for yourself where you are clear and where you are unclear about the situation (internally). Surrounding an ambiguous situation there are often some places of clarity. In the case of a church with declining membership and attendance the place of ambiguity may be “how do we get more members?” Around this sticky issue there are places of clarity that should be named. For example, a congregation could discover that young families are living in the neighborhoods around the church, that they tend to be middle class. In other words, there are people that could come to this church—its not sitting in an island of farmland with no one around for miles. This kind of certainty helps leaders to identify other areas of certainty, which over time can build a better picture of the precise issue that is hindering the ministry or business.

Articulate to others the boundary between your clarity and your lack of clarity (externally). This is often best done simply by stating the problem you’re trying to solve and then listing your knowns. Then, spring-boarding from that into the listing as many unknown factors as you can. Putting all of this together should enable your team to (eventually) arrive at consensus about where the boundary is between certainty and ambiguity.

Say what you want to do, given the situation. The aim here is not finding the perfect solution. The goal is not finding absolute clarity. It is simply weighing all the evidence you currently have, identifying some ways forward and moving toward one of them. In the case of the declining church, it could be something as simple as deciding the leadership making the decision to actively engage neighbors in conversation with a view to more deeply understanding what life is like for those who live in the neighborhood. Even something that simple helps propel a team toward greater clarity.

Tell others what you need from them. Other members of the team need clarity about the project, lines of authority, and desired outcomes. As a team member it’s critical that this is stated explicitly so that everyone understands it or if there is haziness (beyond the problem itself) that it is acknowledged and then clarified.

Leading in uncertain times is very demanding. This template from Executive Coaching with Backbone and Heart can provide a great way to step back from the problem and systematically edge forward into greater clarity rather than becoming disoriented and losing focus.

What do you do to navigate uncertainty?

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[i] Presbyterian Mission Agency, Presbyterian Church (USA). Available Online at: http://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/research/10faq/